“Two Old Ladies with Nothing to do All Day”

MH AssochamOvalTwo Old Ladies with nothing to do all day.”  I didn’t know what he was saying at the time, but he was trying to push me away from an office entrance at the school.  He spoke in Bengali, still difficult for me. Sometimes it’s better not to know what people are saying especially when I am making a disturbance.

I’ll skip all the details because even as I wrote them I was bored.  I was at a parent’s meeting where our six year old attends.  I was meeting with the Coordinator when a big man came into the office and tried to have his meeting and I refused to let him take over.  But after the meeting another man tried to burst into the office as our neighbor was having her meeting. I was blocking the entrance.  He tried to push me away and I refused which led to the outburst.  I was with Seema Gupta our Vice President, and retired Joint Registrar of the Calcutta High Court.  She was horrified.  He probably said even worse.  She holds back on telling me the really bad stuff.  He was aggressively saying he had to to go office and we were two old ladies with nothing to do with ourselves except stand around talking.

But here is the kicker!  I called aside one of the women officials who had seemed sympathetic and said I was upset about the men just taking over.  She said, “Maam, this is India and you have to follow the culture,”  I told her I wouldn’t.

Back home at Shishur Sevay I was telling the teachers and one said, “Yes, and I have to go through this at my child’s school next week.”

Why do I make a scene?  I have nothing to lose.  The women around me have too much to lose.  They accept it because they have no choice.  I resist openly just so other women can hear that someone thinks this is not OK, that they should not have to live as they do.  Living in the West we don’t really get it, because it’s not about incidents, but about living as a lesser person.   And for women like me, transposed from a sense of freedom and empowerment, these insults hurt.  They make me want to go back and pull out my accomplishments, to say I’m not just an old lady with nothing to do.  But he would never understand, neither of those men would.  To them I really am just an old lady.

This is hardly the first time, and certainly not the last, and I tell myself to ignore it, but in truth, I feel bad.  I feel devalued, and that was exactly their intent.

 

 

The Wounded

Oases and Mirages1

Ten years of living with the wounded children; for now haiku becomes the best way I can explain.  There is no miracle to what Shishur Sevay does, except that we do it with the commitment we will not give up and when they urge us to give up on them, we still do not.  When on rare occasions they peek out from their cocoons, we are there smiling, encouraging, but never tugging.  It is not an easy process for them or for the people trying to help them and protect them, and none of it is personal.  I  love building oases.

The Sign: LOST AND UNCLAIMED BAGGAGE

I stepped out of the old Kolkata airport into the strong musty smell that told me I was home.  Walking to the carpark, I noticed a low bluish building with a huge sign: LOST AND UNCLAIMED BAGGAGE.  I tried to imagine the goods there, luggage forgotten, tags lost; clothes and cheap jewellery left on the plane; contraband goods being smuggled but suddenly not worth being caught — the lost and unclaimed — inventory on the shelves of the blue building across the parking lot at Kolkata’s airport.  What they all had in common was the absence of traceable tags… identification — no origins, no destinations.

There is a taller building about half way between the airport and the city — a government institution that houses children, orphan children.  Many lack tags or identification.  They arrive — some via police, via Childline, via kind people who realized they were lost.  In Kolkata it is the lucky ones who end up in this building because sometimes children are “found” and then sold.

The children of Shishur Sevay came from this government building. Their lack of any known connections resulted in their being excluded from most “orphanages” since there would be no family or community to take them when they reached 18.  Additionally they had each been reviewed and rejected for adoption.  How had they gotten there?  Each had her story.  One had been found lying sick under a train seat.  She was hospitalised with pneumonia, sepsis, meningitis, and suffered a stroke.  Others have stories of being left at a train station or on a corner, but no one ever coming back for them.  They have stories of violence and escapes.

This morning I happened to be looking at an organization which is a federation of groups of parents of children/family members with disabilities.  It’s a national advocacy group. But who are the advocates for the orphans no one will take, especially if they have disabilities?   Early in the history of Shishur Sevay we had a terrible battle with the government. They had made a decision, without notifying us, that they would send five girls who were not orphans.  A major donor had just pulled out of an NGO run home, and one unit had to be closed.  A woman showed up at our gate, unannounced, and said she was here to put her child at Shishur Sevay.  I told her there was a mistake and I went to meet with the government officials.  There I found yet another mother who had been told to bring her daughter to us, and I refused.  The government official asked me what was the difference between our girls and this woman’s daughter.  I turned to the mother and said, “You may not know it but your daughter has a wonderful mother who will fight for her.”   The same government official who four months before had sat at Shishur Sevay rocking one of my brown dolls, and telling me we would get the children, now threatened to bring charges against me for discrimination against children with mothers.  She threatened to close Shishur Sevay and take the children.  I stayed polite and composed and told them they would have to kill me first. It was about a year of tension until we were able to get a renewal and I lived in terror that they would actually try to close us.

Why did I refuse?  Our motherless girls would have immediately become second class citizens to these educated girls with mothers who would advocate for them.  In India, to be an orphan is to carry shame.  “So your family threw you out?”  Orphans come with more shame, histories of unimaginable abuse, and a profound sense of grief and loss. Some live with suicidal fantasies seemingly their only relief from the pain of loss.  They lack trust.  After all if you can’t trust your own family to keep you, why should you ever trust anyone else?

Most orphans are not able to be effective advocates for orphan children.  Few are really educated so their stories are not articulated in ways that are heard.  And they live in shame.  Yes, I have a hope that our girls, if they choose, will be able to speak about the care that is needed.  They are being educated to have the skills to be effective on behalf of themselves and others.  But they are also free to walk away if they choose.  It cannot be another burden for them to bear.

One of a Hundred Stories

Dr. Harrison in 2006

Dr. Harrison in 2006

I have a hundred stories for a hundred lives lived just within this lifetime.  In this story I am the Founder of Childlife Preserve Shishur Sevay, a model of inclusive non-institutional care for orphan girls previously housed in a government institution, having already been rejected for adoption.  Some have severe disabilities.  All carried wounds, some visible, some buried deep within their memories.

This story began when I was 17 years old. I’d written an essay for school about “The Meaning of Life” in which I saw myself acquiring the education and skills to one day care for orphans in need.  I had just seen some pictures of Korean orphans when a friend returned from the war.  Something clicked; something that has lasted a lifetime.

I adopted my Indian daughter from Kolkata in 1984 and raised her in the US. That is my connection to Kolkata, a very personal one.  Kolkata is family. I also have an older daughter to whom I gave birth.  I raised both them as a single parent.  All my stories have twists and turns to them, all 100 of them.

In 2000 I decided we should visit Kolkata.  I had just been through breast cancer and didn’t know how long I would live.  I had also wondered what happens to the children not adopted.  I knew India needed to provide for its orphan children and not just ship them abroad.  When we visited, and in subsequent visits I made, it was clear that mostly these children languished.  I also realized that there was little hope or expectation that anything really could be done for them.  The phrase I kept hearing was, ‘Nothing Can Be Done.”

I sold my house in 2006.  My younger daughter graduated from Barnard College and the older one from New York Law School and I left for India to start Childlife Preserve Shishur Sevay.  The Society received its registration in June 2006.  We received our License in January 2007 and 12 girls were sent to us by Order of the WB Child Welfare Committee for care rehabilitation, four of them with profound disabilities.  I realized quickly that what the children needed most was a “mother” at home checking their homework at night.  I also learned how much they needed each other.  Bonds of genuine love grew between the abled and the children with severe disabilities.  I am mother to them but their strength and security is also in their connections to each other.

Shishur Sevay is not well-known.  I used to refer to us as a stealth orphanage.  Some of that was because I couldn’t stretch myself or our resources any farther, and also because it was hard for me to keep hearing people say it couldn’t be done.  In my relationship with the government I was simply a nice lady from America who liked children.  I shed the titles, roles, privileges of my earlier life.  I also endured death threats and all the other obstacles to creating something good in the face of a culture of mistrust and cynicism.  I needed time to learn about these children.  I understand why people felt nothing could be done, because some of these children are the first to tell you not to bother, that nothing can be done for them. I needed time, time to think, to learn, to try approaches that worked or sometimes didn’t work.  The children needed time, a lot of time, a lot of safety and protection, and a lot of support as they began to risk “trying.”

Ten years later Shishur Sevay is a shining example of what CAN be done.  The girls are thriving.  Two are studying for Class X Boards.  Shishur Sevay is a leader in inclusive living and inclusive education.  We have caught the attention of researchers at Vanderbilt University and have been studied as a unique case of inclusion of abled and differently abled.  We created our own school Ichche Dana Inclusive School, as after six years we gave up on outside schooling for our children.

We are leaders in advanced communication technology.  We were among the first in India to use the Tobii Eye Tracker for our girls with severe cerebral palsy.  They are able now to communicate with us using their eyes to control the computer.   For them and for us this is a profound life changing experience. Our girls are showing what can be done.  We are doing it IN India so that the girls have opportunity without the loss of their homeland, language, culture, heritage and religion.  In the first week I showed them the map of India and began to teach them that they are Indian, that this is their country, and that they belong.  Although I am American and a catalyst, we are strong because of our Indian staff of teachers, caretakers, accountants, administrators, and Board.  Each year we have passed our inspections and the government has thanked us for our efforts.  India gave me the gift of my daughter, who lives happily in the US.  But I am like so many fortunate Indians who want to give back for the gift I have received.

Our infrastructure is strong.  We have received the GuideStar Gold Seal 2017 for transparency of our records, a goal from the beginning.  Our records and processes are open.  We want people to understand what we do and how we do it.

What must be the next part of this story?

  1. Establish lifetime care, inclusive and inter-generational for those who cannot live independently
  2. Establish Shishur Sevay as a model of inclusive care in the spectrum of alternatives to institutionalisation
  3. Conduct training in inclusive living and education in the community and within the professional community
  4. Assist in the creation of other homes based on the model of Shishur Sevay but adapted to the character and needs of the community
  5. Inspire hope and dreams by evoking positive inclusive experiences with the differently abled
  6. Contribute to the building of an Inclusive India

For this, we are no longer stealth, and I am no longer quiet. I am here to tell you what I have learned in raising these abandoned and rejected children.  I will share what they have taught me, what I have learned.  And I will share my adventure of constant growth and emergence.  I’m back.

We are here. We are building an inclusive India

2017: We Are Here. We Are Building An Inclusive India

 

 

 

Previous Older Entries

December 2018
S M T W T F S
« Aug    
 1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
3031  
%d bloggers like this: